Wednesday, February 19, 2014

RPG Stuff: Final Numenera Review

In the wake of Knights of the Night finishing their one-shot adventure, I have come to following conclusions about Numenera.

Setting wise, Numenera persists in being very unique and open for use to set a variety of campaigns. You could be playing the peacekeepers of the mostly stable and just realms in the Steadfast, on the borders defending the frontier from encroaching barbarians from the Beyond, or you could be one of the people in the strife and conflict beset Beyond trying to eke out a life. There vagueness of the setting's history allows for a lot of hooks to prior ages as decided by the players. I have in mind a current desire to play a Cthulhu-tech game followed later by a Numenera game in which the players find ancient monuments or signs of their CT characters.

That said. The setting is the primary draw of this game. There is a class of games that I purchase not for the system but the setting. One example of such would be Palladium's Nightbane setting which has a wonderfully delicious mythology going for it even if you ignore the overall Palladium multiverse. I should note that I have also purchased Heroes Unlimited and other Palladium books purely for idea generation. Likewise the next time I run the Scion setting will likely not use the Scion system. Numenera has now joined these ranks.

Matched with the lovely and evocative setting is a decidedly problematic system.

Starting with the character creation, the basic system is a wonderfully elegant thing. You choose three templates: a profession, a descriptor and a focus using a framework of "[Name] is a(n) [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]." There are literally hundreds of possible combinations, on the end closer to one thousand. Unfortunately, this creates a wide variance.

The six characters I created for myself mostly had three to six separate skills. By comparison, the Knights of the Night were laboring with characters that on average had two to three skills. I should also note that it is possible in character creation to get to a specialized level in one or two skills. I found it especially easy to do so. However, this is something of a trap. Depending on your chosen focus it is possible that your character would receive extra training in that skill later. This sounds good until you realize that skill training past "specialized" is lost. As such you have to check your future stat gains to make sure you aren't robbing yourself later in the game. This is annoying to me. I feel like I'm being punished for being too efficient in character building.

"Oh, you look, you can specialize Speed Defense right off the bat but if you do that we're not going to give you this mid-tier advance here. Well, we'll give it to you but it won't do anything."

The foci are very beautifully done for the most part. At least thematically, however there are some problems here as well. For one thing, there is a lot of variance. You have foci that are broadly usable such as "Masters Defense" or "Talks with Machines", but then there are things like "Exists Partially Out of Phase" the initial levels of which would be very useful in some games but pointless in others. Unfortunately, a lot of GMs will note that the phaser can walk through walls and either deem such obstacles pointless, thus never using them and giving a phaser (or other sort) the chance to shine; or else fiat an anti-phasing Numenera frequently enough to make the power pointless. The second is worse than the first because now you're pretty much rubbing the player's face in the fact they don't get to use this power they picked. A good GM won't have a problem with this, but an average to mediocre GM, which are the majority, might.

Then, of course, there's "Howls at the Moon." I think the only way that got through playtest is because it likely did not receive much play by the testers. This "power" would represent about 20-40 points of Disadvantages in a HERO System game. The focus represents a tremendous loss of agency. There is an increase in physical capability, yes, but your character never acquires total control over it. At the highest levels the most control a player has over the ability is, at the highest levels of character advancement, be able to turn it on and off at will. This sounds like it should be enough but I then have thoughts of a GM enforcing the attack anything attitude when a character finishes one enemy and the nearest other thing is another PC. Sure I'd be able to change out of monster form but then I'd be naked on a battlefield and have to run towards the enemy next turn so I could turn back into a monster again. There is no real usable benefit for the character while they are in human form. No extra health. No increased healing. Nope the only power this focus gives you is the ability to excuse being a player killer. Knights of the Night handled it about as well as I imagine it could be handled and it still dominated several sessions and at times seemed to threaten to derail the adventure.

Now we come to the actual system. Despite my distaste for the d20 curve, I do not inherently despise all d20 systems. I enjoy M&M as well as d20 Modern/Future especially (I consider it a crime of sheer stupidity that WotC did not pursue the system they developed in D20 Modern and instead decided to take a number of good ideas and shove them brutally through the 4e wood chipper under the impression that it seemed to work for Fargo. But the misuse of the gems shattered and scattered through 4e is another rant.). All that said, Numenera is the first d20 system I've seen that magnifies the weaknesses of the flat curve system.

Instead of applying bonuses to die rolls, Numenera works primarily by reducing difficulties. Skill training reduces things by one level per rank of training (trained or specialized) spending effort and the use assets reduces things further. It sounds as if this is the same thing as roll bonuses. And to some degree it is, with each reduction in difficulty being essentially a +3 on the roll. However the overall probability comes out such that chance is more often a factor than it is in D&D or other more traditional bonus related d20 systems. The limits on how many levels of training you get leaves it difficult to ever eliminate chance the way you can with high bonuses to skills.

On the one hand, this makes it easier to plan encounters and obstacles because there's less of a chance that any particular difficulty level will become obsolete the way a DC 10 does in D&D. On the other hand it feels to the player as if there isn't any growth going on.

The main problem with the system is in the form of its attempt at a resource management style of play. The awarding and use of certain points in this system is very similar to what is used in the Fate system. It is also reminiscent of the way Hero Points can be used in M&M, Drama Points in Cthulhutech, Energy in Big Eyes, Small Mouth, Willpower in WW games, Motes/Legend/Blood Pool/Rage/Quintessence/whatever also in White Wolf games and Action Points in certain d20 games. The main problem being, of course, that all of none of these systems use experience points as the metagame resource while Numenera does.

Before I go further into the use of experience points as a roll manipulator, lets look at the other resource in play. The star pools. You have pools for Might, Speed and Intellect. You use the points from these pools in order to perform actions. This is all well and good until you look to see how damage is done: which is by reducing your pools. And if you take more damage than you have pool you become damaged or disabled or dead. If I remember the levels right.

Yes, just to confirm, every ability is cast from hit points. If you muster a large amount of resources and effort in an attack that fails to finish off an enemy you could find yourself seriously injured next round from what would otherwise have been a small hit. Conversely if you get hit early on, you won't be able to make the big dramatic efforts. The rest mechanics helps this very, very minimally. It still remains that dramatic action is not encouraged by the system while cautious, wary play is. This may be realistic, but it is not dramatic. Being unable to match a low hit point status with an all or nothing effort is..annoying. And it isn't just unwise to do so, the system simply does not allow for it. You can't perform all or nothing efforts when low on HP because that HP would fuel the effort.

Back to the experience point reroll mechanic. First of all there's a paucity of options. Most other meta-mechanics allow you a number of options to use with the spent resource: Reroll or bonus to the roll with Hero Points and Legend, for example. Spending xp in Numenera only allows for one option. However the one option it allows is the one that is more ruled by chance: reroll. Also, they could have opted for the M&M style reroll where 10 is added to any result less than 11, but they didn't. I'm fairly sure this was done to prevent the characters from absolutely insuring the success of a particular roll the way you can in Fate, Scion or BESM (if you're willing to risk unconsciousness). This would be an understandable design choice if the spent resource were anything OTHER than Experience Points. If you are spending XP on any particular roll you should damn well have an assurance of that roll at least squeaking through a success. Especially in a system that gives out XP sparingly.

I would also like to point out something else about the meta mechanics of other games. In most other games meta resources come rather quickly. Fate Points flow like water in a properly run game. Legend and Willpower in Scion is recovered by giving your actions thematic flare called "stunting" which itself gives you 1-3 bonus dice based on how cool the table finds the stunt. (Your recovery of Willpower and Legend is determined by how many stunt dice you get). Hero Points in M&M refresh per session and come whenever you do something particularly heroic or in character. Blood pool recovers by feeding. Energy in BESM recovers by resting. All of these are easily done so that you refresh between scenes. XP in Numenera only comes at the end of a session or when the GM causes something bad to happen, which will likely cause your party to have to spend more XP than the event rewarded.

My initial concern was the XP sharing system, where a player gains XP when the GM decides to do something evil to his character (a mechanic that sounds exactly like an Aspect compel from Fate). The player gets two XP, one for himself and one for another player of his or her choice. This concern did not arise in the KotN podcast though I suspect that's because they are largely mature players who have been gaming together for years. I suspect it would be a point of contention with younger, less well knit groups.

The advancement scheme does not concern me. That is ripped directly from Savage Worlds and could easily work if the characters weren't dumping their XP towards surviving. That said, the advancements themselves DO concern me. While you can increase Edge and Pools and other such things, the costs of Powers and Tricks as you level seems to rapidly out pace the growth of your resources. This, however, is simple conjecture based on the design philosophies that have become apparent in listening to the KotN podcast. Numenera is built around a philosophy of restricting character achievement in hopes of producing a sense of tension. I'd expect that philosophy to continue, so when I see the costs of powers reaching 3,4,5 and higher use costs rather quickly, I have to think that the intention is for higher level powers to be all or nothing gambits. As I have said earlier, the system does not numerically encourage all or nothing gambits.

The KotN discussion of skills and a lack of a social interaction method is also a concern. Given you have intellect points could it not have been possible to come up with a system of attack and defense that doesn't result in death in order to simulate lively and vicious debate? Instead all the discussion is about physical combat. Likewise the system either defines the skills too much or not enough. It seems as if because they encourage players to make up their own skills, the developers decided it wasn't necessary to define what was meant by the couple of dozen example skills they included. Largely I look at the skill system as similar to the 4e situation: underdeveloped. Actually, worse. 4e skills and skill challenges included some innovative concepts. Numenera skills are a disguised +3 or +6 (depending on trained/specialized level) bonus to rolls made involving a player decided set of tasks. Also 4e thoroughly defines what it's skills can and can't do. Likewise Fate, HERO, BESM and other "make your own" skills systems include well defined default skills and at least some guidelines in making up your own skills. Numenera has neither well defined default skills nor guidelines to creation nor any particularly interesting innovations.

All in all the system is troubled, extremely so. The main trouble is focused around the resource management aspect and the fact that the game is set up by enforcing both cast-from-HP and cast-from-XP. Without that issue, most of the rest of the system could be dealt with. As it stands the character creation procedure and the mechanic of the characters rolling for everything while the GM never rolls are the only features I like.

Currently drivethruRPG shows this PDF as selling at $19.99. At that price I consider the book to be just barely worth it on setting alone. However, the normal price is showing to be $60. This game is not worth paying $60 for. If you like the setting idea so much you can watch Scrapped Princess (which a reliable friend tells me is almost literally the same setting) and/or make your own thing up. Heck, as long ago as ten years ago I had an idea for a world engineered and run by what were essentially gamer nerds with nanotechnology, genetic engineering, digital consciousness transfer and little to no morality. But don't buy Numenera if it goes to its "original price".

Some ways that might work to fix Numenera.  Just some outside thoughts, multiple variations.

Skills are relatively easy, simply make sure that you and your players have a clear pre-game understanding of what you think a particular skill covers or doesn't cover.

Allow Effort to be applied retroactively.  This is thematic, since it can represent the last-ditch effort to achieve a success out of failure.

Use some other points to rather than XP for reroll.  Name them whatever, Drama Points, Fate Points whatever.

Give more XP.

Separate the pools from Health, have mental and physical health be their own pool rather than cause damage to be taken from the pool that allows characters to do stuff.

Expand the combat consequences, the current system is essentially a hacked variation of the Stress and Consequence system from Fate.  Allow more Consequences than the listed amount.  For example having a social combat using the same mechanics and attacking the character's Health pool could result in someone believing a lie rather than being dead.

If you insist on spending XP for the rerolls, weight the reroll in the favor of the character.  Roll 2d20 and take the highest, for example.  Roll 1d20 and add +10 to any result less than 11.

Howls at the Moon needs an overhaul.  There needs to be some sort of benefit to it that doesn't involve attacking your party members.

Oh. Use Mutants and Masterminds, BESM, Fate or HERO systems but set it in the Numenera setting.


  1. Thanks for the review! I found myself during the 3e era buying a ton of Monte Cook's work, but using virtually none of it. It always gave me the impression that it was a good idea poorly executed. I dig his style; I think he's talented, but he needs a mechanical partner to really allow his style to shine. Maybe some day he will meet this mythic person and together they will destroy the world.


    1. Thank you for the comment! You actually make the first person to comment on anywhere on my blog.


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